Chicago’s gang-violence problem has spread to the funeral processions and burials of slain gang members, and both law enforcement and elected officials are working to curb the trend.
The processions, which often begin in Chicago and travel through the western suburbs to cemeteries in the village of Hillside, are described by police as chaotic scenes, where gang members drive erratically, hang out of car windows, threaten other motorists and, at times, discharge firearms.
Police in Oak Park, Forest Park, Hillside and elsewhere are frequently alerted by Chicago police and funeral home directors when the so-called “rowdy funerals” are likely to take place. But cops and village officials say the turbulent funerals are becoming more common.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin are establishing a task force to curb the violence that happens on a weekly basis at Chicago-area cemeteries.
Boykin said in a telephone interview that constituents in Hillside and the Austin neighborhood of Chicago brought the issue to his attention in recent months, prompting him to establish the working group of cemetery owners, law enforcement officials and faith-based leaders.
He said the group will hold three public hearings over the course of about three months later this year to develop recommendations.
Boykin noted an incident that took place in Hillside on Dec. 5, 2017, when police there were made aware that suspected gang members attending a funeral at Oakridge Cemetery had discharged a weapon as the procession headed along the Eisenhower Expressway.
Hillside police followed the suspected gang members as they left the funeral, and a chase ensued. Police rammed the suspects’ vehicle and arrested four people — three handguns were found in the vehicle.
Hillside Police Chief Joe Lukaszek said “rowdy funerals” are nothing new in Chicago, but they have become more common.
“We get complaints of people drinking [at funerals], bands playing loud music and kids playing soccer and baseball on the graves,” Lukaszek said. “It’s not out of control, but it’s a growing problem.”
Funeral processions from the city often travel along Madison Street, Roosevelt Road or the Eisenhower Expressway, he said, noting that sometimes the rowdy processions occur multiple times a week.
“They’re driving around like it’s a big party and they can do whatever they want, and that’s not how it is,” Lukaszek said.
The increased frequency of the chaotic processions have funeral directors worried, he added.
Lukaszek learned about the establishment of the task force after reading about it in the news. “I really have no idea what the task force entails,” he said.
Forest Park Police Chief Thomas Aftanas said in an interview in December 2017, shortly after the arrests in Hillside, that he regularly receives alerts from other police departments about potentially violent funeral processions passing through his town. But only two descended into rowdiness over the past year and a half.
He said pulling people over during a funeral procession is the last thing police want to do because processions that can include hundreds of people often have only a few gang members causing trouble.
Police will use a P.A. system to order those acting out in a funeral procession to tone it down. “[We] try and get them to comply, and the vast majority of time they do,” he said, noting that he’s never seen that kind of behavior from non-gang members.
“Obviously there’s family members [in the processions] — not everybody is acting that way, just a couple here and there,” he said. “You feel sorry for those people; I think it’s the gang members who are causing the problem.”
Oak Park Police Chief Anthony Ambrose said he also is alerted by other police departments and funeral homes when a funeral procession has the potential to become violent.
He said the OPPD sometimes provides a police escort for particularly large processions, but not necessarily violent ones. The escorts aim to get the processions through town quickly, he said.
Ambrose said Oak Park only experienced a few rowdy funeral processions last year. They usually pass along Roosevelt Road, Jackson Boulevard and Madison Street, he said. OPPD will post squad cars along the route, when police suspect a procession might become rowdy.
“In the past we’ve had issues where people were driving erratically; in those instances, we’ll pull the cars over,” he said. “First and foremost is the safety of the community.”
He said OPPD has not had any funeral processions where motorists displayed weapons.
“A lot of processions come through town, and 95 percent of them are peaceful, and people drive appropriately and follow the rules of the road,” he said.
Ambrose said he did not believe Oak Park police have ever arrested anyone passing though the village in a funeral procession, but it’s possible.
“It’s a funeral; you’re laying someone to rest, and it doesn’t give you the right to act like a fool,” he said.
Boykin also expressed his disappointment with the chaotic funeral processions, noting that the solution must include “enhanced communication between law enforcement jurisdictions.” Social media could be used to make police departments aware of the potential for rowdy funerals.
“As we head into the warm season, we want to make sure we get a handle on it,” Boykin said.